The Reality of the Tigers' Defensive Woes

If you’re reading this, you most likely spend actual money to read articles on this site and that probably means you've been a Tigers fan for quite a while. Maybe this doesn't describe you, but I’m going to wager you’re familiar with the last decade or so of Tigers baseball. They've won four division titles and two pennants in the last nine years. It’s been a good run.

But there are also these little, consistent warts that drive you a little crazy. I’ll single out three. Depth, bullpen, and defense. The last is at issue today.

Since 2006 (what we can call the modern era of Tigers baseball), the team is somewhere just below average if you go by Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) or Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), the two leading defensive metrics. The stats aren’t perfect, but when you’re talking about 100,000 innings, they won’t be much of a problem.

Now a little below average doesn’t seem that bad. It seems downright acceptable. But then you inadvertently look at the numbers from the last four seasons, 2011-2014, and you relive every moment of it. The Tigers are 27th in UZR and 28th in DRS over that time span. If you take the rough average, we’re talking about being 30 or so runs below average, on average, in each of the last four years. It’s been a mess.

I joke about the defense as a coping mechanism, but I thought it might be useful to pull it apart a little bit. Let’s look into those last nine years and last four years, and let’s find the best and worst defender at each position and then the team average. To make things easier, we’ll use DRS because there’s no UZR for catchers.

Below we have the average DRS per 1500 innings (just over 162 games) for each position since 2006 and 2011, and the best and worst individual seasons for the Tigers since 2006.

Since 2006: -1
Since 2011: -3
Best: +10, Ivan Rodriguez (2008)
Worst: -7, Alex Avila (2010)

First Base
Since 2006: -3
Since 2011: -6
Best: 4, Carlos Guillen (2007 in 178.2 innings) and Don Kelly (2010 in 135 innings)
Worst: -13, Prince Fielder (2013)

Second Base
Since 2006: 4
Since 2011: 0
Best: 20, Ian Kinsler (2014)
Worst: -8, Ryan Raburn (2011 in 401 innings)

Since 2006: -1
Since 2011: -1
Best: 9, Adam Everett (2009)
Worst: -12, Carlos Guillen (2007)

Third Base
Since 2006: -2
Since 2011: -15
Best: 24, Brandon Inge (2006)
Worst: -30, Nick Castellanos (2014)

Left Field
Since 2006: 4
Since 2011: 5
Best: 8, Don Kelly (2010) and Ryan Raburn (2009)
Worst: -9, Marcus Thames (2008)

Center Field
Since 2006: 6
Since 2011: 4
Best: 29, Austin Jackson (2011)
Worst: -10, Curtis Granderson (2008)

Right Field
Since 2006: -13
Since 2011: -16
Best: 2, Casper Wells (2010 in 151 innings), Brent Clevlen (2006, 23 innings), Don Kelly (2011, 154 innings)
Worst: -18, Torii Hunter (2014)

Overall, there are few interesting results. First, the Tigers have had no ceiling at first base and right field. They haven’t had a great season at either in nine years with several awful ones. In fact, the “good” players at both positions had their positive numbers in a small number of innings. The best first base seasons both happened in fewer than 200 innings each! Brent Clevlen is tied for the best right field season in just 23 innings.

I also would have expected much worse from second base and left field, but second base especially has featured some really good seasons to balance out that year Raburn was on pace for like -30 DRS. Third base is amazing for the range. Inge at +24 and Castellanos at -30. Those are probably both a little propped up by randomness, but it’s pretty amazing to compare those two seasons.

In general, I was expecting the averages to be a little worse. Right field, third base, and to a less extend first base have been rough since 2011, but right field has been the only disaster over the last nine years. The Tigers haven’t had a lot of luck with defense overall, but they’ve had enough good seasons mixed in to dampen the negatives a bit.

They have Jose Iglesias, Anthony Gose, and Yoenis Cespedes this year and Kinsler will be back as well. We might see players chase these records, but we also might see Castellanos or an injured Cabrera challenge them as well.

For 2015, the positive seems to be that the odds of great years outweigh the odds of bad years. Although it’s exactly that kind of hubris that followed two years of Cabrera at third base with a rough rookie season from Castellanos, so let’s not pop the champagne just yet.

Neil Weinberg is a Senior Analyst for TigsTown. He is also the Founder of New English D, a contributor to Gammons Daily, the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score, and the Site Educator at FanGraphs. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44

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